Faking It

With digital-image trickery on the rise, it pays to not always believe your eyes.

April 17, 2003|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Fake photos are more common every year. They're not a new thing, of course. Retouching has been possible for years. But it used to take an expert with special equipment.

Now anyone with Photoshop, GIMP, or equivalent digital editing software can play the game. And the easy Internet transmission of photos means the results can move around the world in seconds, appearing in front of millions of people.

In late March, the Los Angeles Times unknowingly printed a fake news photo from Iraq. It showed a British soldier waving to Iraqi civilian refugees, telling them to get down to avoid gunfire from Iraqi fighters near Basra. After publication, the editors noticed that some of the refugees in the background actually appeared twice.

The paper questioned the photographer and he admitted digitally combining two news photos he had taken to get a better composition. He hadn't really changed the meaning of the photos. He had taken both, just moments apart, and hadn't added any new elements to the resulting photo or changed what anyone was doing.

You can see the originals and the digital combination at www. latimes.com/news/custom/showcase/la-ednote-blurb.blurb.

Still, the photographer was fired. Generally agreed-upon journalism ethics prohibit what he did. The reason? If any editing of photos is accepted - beyond simple adjustments to contrast and color, or cropping truly extraneous material around the sides - then readers will become skeptical of all photos in the paper.

And the Times had a strict, written policy against tampering with news photos.

Another faked photo landed in my own e-mail inbox recently. It was one of those things forwarded over and over. This digital photo showed several senators saluting the flag with Senate Minority Tom Daschle of South Dakota in the middle. Unfortunately, while everyone else is holding right hand over heart, Daschle is using his left. The accompanying text in the forwarded e-mail mocks Daschle's intelligence and patriotism.

Well, political satire is all over the Internet, and there are plenty of "photoshopped" pictures of everyone political. (That's a popular new verb, by the way, used for any digital editing of photos, but especially that which makes the photo more beautiful or perfect.) Most are obvious - putting famous faces on top of embarrassing bodies or situations. This one wasn't obvious. The asides from the string of people who forwarded it showed that most were assuming it was a real photo. But a quick search with Google brought me to the Snopes.com hoaxes page (at http://www.snopes.com/photos/daschle.asp) that points out the fakery. Someone flipped the Daschle part of the pic. It was a decent job, but close inspection shows that Daschle's supposed "left" hand isn't showing a wedding ring and his jacket is buttoned up the wrong side. Men's coats always have the buttons on the left and the holes on the right.

No one's getting fired over this one. But it, too, was wrong. Not to mess with the photo. That's fair game. And not to make fun of a politician. That's freedom of speech. But claiming that it was a real photo was outside generally agreed-upon ethics. And forwarding it without question also is wrong. Sadly, we seem ready to believe the worst of people just because we disagree with their politics. And then the lies that become rumors become myths become accepted history.

How can you avoid being taken in by fake photos?

Seeing isn't believing, not any more. That old saying "don't believe everything you read" has to be expanded.

Before you forward any pictures, do a quick search online to see if they've already been exposed as fakes. Go to Google.com, type in a few words related to the photo and click "search." In my example, "daschle salute photo" was enough. Or go directly to hoax sites such as Snopes.com, Urbanlegends.about.com, or TruthOrFiction.com, to see if they've already analyzed the pic.

Look closely at the picture for item mistakes, as in the Daschle example. Are clocks showing the numbers counter-clockwise? Are the words on doors, windows, or publications upside down or reversed?

Look for background repetition clues, as in the Times shot. Do portions of the background - such as clouds, people or buildings - repeat? When photo editors eliminate something from a photo, they typically replace it with a copy of something that was already in the photo.

Look for perspective, lighting, and shadow flaws. When people repeat part of a photo, to cover up something taken away, or when they add something from another photo, it's very difficult to coordinate the lighting and angles with what's already there.

Be suspicious of blurry photos. There's a reason the Loch Ness monster and Sasquatch and other such mysteries always appear as blurs. And it isn't that everyone in those mystic regions is cursed with cheap cameras and bad film.

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